Most of my students love doing improv, but I find that the ability to create a good melody is very unevenly distributed among them. Some of them create great melodies just on instinct, and I don’t need to do much but encourage. Others stare at me blankly, repeat a broken C major chord over and over, or play an endless succession of one-fingered quarter notes that seem to be chosen at random. Regardless of their ability level, this exercise can help them think outside the box and create more interesting melodies.
What You Need:
- Piano Music (Whatever piece the student is currently working on is fine.)
- Blank paper
- Writing Utensil
- Cards with various curves on them. I use a set I drew by hand in about 5 minutes, but you could also print and cut up these.
What to Do:
- With the student, take a look at the piano music. Use the blank paper to draw the shape of the melody in the first phrase. Explain it as you go: “See how the second note goes up from the first? I’m going up on my paper. Then it stays there for three beats, so I’m going to draw a straight line. Then it jumps down to a lower note.”
- Have the student draw the melody of the second phrase.
- Whenever the student has got the idea, go back to the piano. Have the student pick one of the cards and create a melody based on that shape. It does not matter which way is up on the card: you can create different melodies depending on which way you hold it. Some of my kids needed me to do the first card to get them the idea. Some of them also needed several tries to get it right.
- After you’ve done several shapes individually, you can string them together to create a song. The student shouldn’t be doing any left hand accompaniment at this point, but you can do some as a duet part.
- If you’re doing this as improv, you’re done. If you’re doing it as a composition, you can then help your student write out the melody they’ve just created.
Here is a quick, no-prep improv to do with students. All of mine enjoyed it.
The student can use any key on the keyboard. They’ll be using their imagination to play something that sounds appropriate, as you talk them through a thunderstorm. If possible, they should be playing continuously.
The teacher will talk through these steps:
- First, the rain is far away and not very loud.
- Gradually, it comes closer, so that the first raindrops actually fall on you.
- The rain grows steadily faster and louder until you are drenched in a downpour.
- Suddenly, there is a thunderclap! (But the rain continues.)
- And another thunderclap!
- There is a brief lull, as the rain lessens.
- With another thunderclap, the rain comes back in full force.
- The wind blows in fits and starts.
- Gradually, the rain moves off, getting softer and lighter as it fades into the distance.
- Until you are left with only a rainbow.
It’s quite interesting to see how many different effects different students come up with, following this same pattern.
In this week’s lessons, we are working on improv. I start out with asking the student to play something that sounds happy and bouncy. Then they play something sad and gloomy. If necessary, we talk about what these things mean in a musical sense. High or low? Staccato or legato? Major or minor? Forte or piano? Allegro or Adagio? A lot of my kids don’t really need that explanation. They get it naturally.
At that point, I bring out a short picture book. Theoretically, any book would work, but my absolute favorite is “My Many-Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss. It’s short, it’s got interesting artwork (not by Dr. Seuss), and it covers pretty much every emotion possible, which makes it easier to decide how to vary the music. I read the book while the student improvs the soundtrack. If I think they can improv it better, I make a suggestion based on the emotion we’re going for. This helps with those students who are liable to play pretty much the same thing every time.
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